In the 1930’s when I was a child, my father could not find a job, so we went on Home Relief. We moved into a cold-water ground floor apartment in Williamsburg, a crowded, Brooklyn slum. There was a two-burner heater in our living room for which my mother refused to buy kerosene. “Cold,” she insisted, “is better for your health. Did you ever hear of an Eskimo who sneezed?” I knew of no such Eskimo. So I shivered but kept my mouth shut for I was aware that the world was a dangerous place.
Our lives literally touched bottom in that basement. My mother’s parents lived nearby with their unmarried children. Often, I would return home from school just in time to catch the last few words of an agitated conversation, followed by abrupt silence at my appearance. Sometimes, their talk ended in weeping. Red eyed, uncles and aunts stood around awkwardly wiping away tears or dabbing at their noses.
Not my grandmother. My grandmother wept openly without embarrassment. Born in a Hungarian shtetl, she cried freely for the victims of the world while her American children tried to conceal their grief. Sometimes the crisis was so urgent, that the agitated discussion I’d interrupted continued in Yiddish, which we youngsters did not understand. Or the grown-ups sent us out into the street where we could hear nothing. Though exiled, we knew the evil they were talking about. How could we not know? It was in the air, on the the very breath of the world: ADOLPH HITLER AND THE NAZIS. They were the bad Germans. Those bad Germans were unimaginable monsters.
We didn’t know any bad Germans personally. The only real Germans we knew personally were the single immigrant family upstairs, the Kalbs, a truck driver and his wife and their three small sons. To me they were an endless source of fascination: their strange speech, their blondness. Because they did not keep kosher, I could not eat anything they offered me; nor even take a drink of water from a trefe glass. All this made them more attractive, made them more wonderful. They lived in the midst of a Jewish enclave, and no one ever explained why or how, but they were our neighbors. And they were good Germans, my parents said. My one big mouth uncle disagreed strongly, insisting that there were NO good Germans and loudly spelling out the word N-O! I never liked him anyway.
When the Kalbs spoke English, I could barely figure out what they said. Mama and Papa talked to them in their own language. Papa called them refugees, a sad word, because it meant they could never go back to their country where everyone spoke their language. Never. How scary that was! What would I do if I lived in a country of strangers who didn’t speak English? I couldn’t imagine. I watched the Kalbs with awe and admiration. When Mrs. Kalb became pregnant, we were all excited. “What they would like is a baby girl,” Mama said. “But they will be glad to have a healthy boy. You must wish for a girl for them.”
Oh, how I wished. I wished and I wished. And then — my wish was granted. The whole block was delighted when the beautiful, blonde baby girl was born.
I felt a special connection because I knew it was my wish that was granted. I had wished so hard. Then to my great dismay and bewilderment, they named the baby “Enemy.”
I was very upset. It was a stupid name. It didn’t seem right to me at all. How could they give this cute little baby with golden curls, who everyone in the neighborhood loved so much, such a hateful name? And why? Did they want her to grow up to be a bad German? A Nazi? I was nearly frantic with worry, but I didn’t dare ask about it. It was not the kind of question I could ask my parents. It was too embarrassing, too personal. I’d get a clop in punim for such a question.
I made up my mind to never never call the baby by that terrible name. Never!
Secretly, I resolved to carefully watch these complicated and puzzling people. I would see what they did, and somehow, if I could I would protect the baby. If necessary, I would report them to a policeman even though I had never talked to one and was really afraid of policemen. I began to spy on the Kalbs. I was constantly alert. I had eyes everywhere. But I never caught them doing anything suspicious to the baby. They seemed to love her. It was totally bewildering. Yet every time I heard someone call her name, “Enemy,” I was reminded of my mission.
I kept my vigil for many weeks till my first school field trip to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. There, we were instructed to line up double-file beside a beautiful display of purple flowers. The large sign said they were related to buttercups, but they didn’t look anything like buttercups.
“These are windflowers,” the guide began to explain. “Windflowers are very famous and lovely flowers known since ancient times. People called them windflowers because it was believed that the blossoms were opened by the wind. The flower’s name is Latin from the original Greek. Different varieties and colors and sizes of this very same plant are found in many parts of the world. The ancient Romans knew the windflower, and the Chinese and the Japanese, too. Medicines were made from this plant. It was supposed to heal bruises miraculously. Its true name is – the ANEMONE! Watch my lips and listen carefully to the way I pronounce it. ANEMONE! A-NEM–O-NE! A-NEM-O-NE!”
“A-NEM-O-NE! A-NEM-O-NE!” We obediently chorused, I loudest of all, my heart gloriously lightened. No policeman would be necessary. My Germans , the Kalbs, were truly good Germans. Anemone – how very beautiful the baby’s name had become!
What a delightful story! The ending was superb – Anemone instead of an enemy – just like any child would infer. O Sheila, how I love reading your blogs. Thank you for writing so well!
P.S. I am just searching Frank Sinatra to play.
This is so wonderful! Thanks.
I read your post in the Times. I have been searching for blogs by older NY Jews. But can only find Christians in the Western half of the country.
My mother had macular degeneration before the shots. She couldn’t get around by herself but she put different amounts and different sized rubber bands on her medications so she could remain independent.
Yes she was a burden. No she wasn’t.
She remained wise to the end and really that’s what matters.
I too love reading your blogs even if i am a shiksa! 🙂
Your writing is wonderful, but your conclusion, not entirely. Yes, it is still your life. It is also the life of your daughter and other members of the family. Judith
I have just discovered you this morning and am delighted! Thank you for your NYT essay and for these wonderful blogs. They are a comfort and a catharsis.